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Spoleto-palooza! 

Or: What a long, strange trip it was

Even columns need a vacation every now and then, so when given the chance to go check out Charleston's Spoleto Festival USA, I jumped at it. In particular, I drove the three-and-a-half hours specifically to see one show: a multimedia performance from African-American DJ, author, and multimedia impresario DJ Spooky, who, in essence, was "remixing" the infamous 1915 D.W. Griffith film Birth of a Nation, itself modeled on the play The Clansmen by Thomas Dixon.

Of course, any great art takes a little sacrifice. In my case, it was a drive through South Carolina, land of "Dump Beasley" bumper stickers and enough conservative billboards to choke...well, the landscape. Said one: "A man should not lie with a man as he lies with a woman. It is an abomination -- Leviticus 18:22." I considered anteing up a grand or so to place one behind it saying "We also believed the world was flat," but decided I didn't live here and left it alone.

Being a bit of an amateur foodie, I couldn't wait to get to Charleston, but the choices between Rock Hill and the coast leave something to be desired. There's the (in)famous Stuckey's, of course, the racists-are-us Maurice's BBQ, hops-related eateries (IHOP, Hops, something called "Hoppy's Place"), and even a mouth-watering little establishment called the "Bi-Lo Cafe."

Being a music writer too, I decided to bypass all of these and head for the safety of the Wilco truck stop instead, thinking that if Jeff Tweedy was involved it couldn't be all bad. After snacking on a Sun-Drop and some beef jerky (when in Rome...er, West Columbia), I stopped to peruse the store's large array of cigarette-lighter plug-in appliances. My favorite was the plug-in slow-cooker (is it me, or does this seem a little beside the point? "Honey, I need some convenient supping. Could you place the roast in our slow-cooker? No, that's the CD player.")

Back on the road, I passed the time by...doing just about anything I could think of. Seeing that a Charlie Condon was vying for Fritz Hollings' soon-to-be-vacant US Senate seat, I dreamed up some new signs to replace the boring-ass ones he had everywhere ("Condon: Keeps You Safe!" And for the female demographic: "Condon: Ribbed For Her Pleasure!"). Deciding I was going to crack up soon if I didn't reach the coast, I was cheered to see the exit for Jedburg and Pinopolis. Only a few minutes to go! When I got passed by a VW with a "The only Bush I trust is a burning one" bumpersticker, I knew the end was near.

After checking into a hotel on the beautiful Ashley River, I asked the guy at the front desk where to, you know, actually find Spoleto. He gave me some detailed instructions, even suggesting where I might park for free. The area he sent me to, however, wasn't the nicest in the world, and was populated with some pretty unsavory-looking individuals. I figured maybe he thought I said "Hoe-leto" or something, but I parked anyway and began the two-plus mile walk.

All was forgiven when I hit the Sottile Theater, home of Spooky's performance. The kind Spoleto crew had provided me with a front-row seat, and after polishing off my gelato, I had one of the greatest in-person art experiences of my life. I was surrounded by folks both young and old, black and white. Whether they classified themselves as hip, a hip-hopper, or in need of a hip replacement, everyone came together for the common good time, which was probably Spooky's point.

Spooky, no stranger to artsy-fartsy collaboration, has done projects like this before -- a project with poet Amiri Baraka, a Dada-inspired "remix" of Marcel Duchamp -- but this was something different. Spooky not only added a soundtrack to fit Birth of A Nation, but also used computer programs to alter the very look of the movie, creating a sort of acid-trip version of Reconstruction that must be seen to be appreciated (if interested, look for a DVD version later this year, or check www.djspooky.com).

Explaining how the film was partially set in South Carolina and premiering in a city where the first shot of the Civil War was fired, Spooky said there was a certain satisfaction in how the film was finally, in his words, "coming home to roost."

Too true. In a little less than a century, racist propaganda has given way to racy performance art. Actors in blackface have given way to actors with actual black faces. Klan Grandmasters have given way to Grandmaster Flash. That's a trip no matter how you slice it.

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